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Penetration testing, commonly called pen testing, is a critical component of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy to assess the security posture of an organization's digital assets. A penetration test simulates real-world attack scenarios to evaluate how effectively an organization's defenses can withstand cyber threats.
If your organization is subject to industry regulations and standards, such as PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), it is required to conduct regular penetration testing to prepare for a regulatory compliance audit.
Penetration testing is extremely valuable for enhancing security controls and practices outside regulatory compliance obligations. You’ll want to conduct a pen test for any of the following reasons:
Your organization handles sensitive or confidential information
There are significant changes made to your IT infrastructure, new application deployments or updates
Your organization relies on third-party vendors or partners for critical services
Your organization has experienced security incidents, breaches, or unauthorized access in the past
To be proactive about risk management and prioritize cybersecurity
To help security and IT teams understand real-world attack scenarios and improve their response strategies.
A penetration test identifies vulnerabilities, weaknesses and potential points of exploitation within an organization's information technology infrastructure, applications, networks and systems. The process typically consists of several well-defined steps to ensure a comprehensive assessment of security measures. While the specifics may vary depending on the scope and goals of the test, here are the general steps involved:
Planning and reconnaissance
Define the scope and objectives of the penetration test in collaboration with your organization's stakeholders.
Gather information about the target systems, networks, applications and potential attack vectors. This includes understanding your organization's architecture, technologies and potential vulnerabilities.
Footprinting and scanning
Gather publicly available information about your organization, such as domain names, IP addresses and network infrastructure.
Create a map of your attack surface using active scanners to query endpoints with test traffic packets to identify live systems, open ports and services running on the network.
Identify and analyze potential vulnerabilities in the target systems and applications. This can involve using automated tools to scan for exploitable vulnerabilities and security weaknesses.
Attempt to exploit identified vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access or control over the target systems and demonstrate the potential impact of successful attacks.
Post-exploitation and lateral movement
After gaining initial access, assess the extent of control a cyber attacker could achieve by moving laterally through the network and escalating privileges.
Data collection and analysis
Collect and analyze the data from exploiting vulnerabilities, including sensitive information, credentials and system access, to determine the potential impact of the identified vulnerabilities and the extent of the compromise.
Prepare a detailed report outlining the findings, including a description of vulnerabilities, exploitation methods and potential business impact, along with recommendations for remediation, including prioritization based on risk assessment.
Remediation and validation
After you work with your IT and security teams to address the identified vulnerabilities and implement necessary patches or security measures, conduct follow-up testing to validate you’ve addressed the vulnerabilities with the right measures.
Whether you’re looking to establish a baseline for improvements or refine security measures, it’s important to note that penetration testing is not a one-time activity. It should be conducted regularly and in response to changes in your environment, technology stack and threat landscape.
Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are both important components of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, but they serve different purposes and involve distinct methodologies. Penetration testing is a more in-depth and proactive approach that simulates real attacks to uncover vulnerabilities and assess potential risks. It involves manual techniques and requires a higher level of expertise to identify how vulnerabilities can be exploited.
In contrast, vulnerability scanning is an automated process that focuses on identifying known vulnerabilities and misconfigurations without actively exploiting them. Both practices play crucial roles in maintaining a strong security posture, with penetration testing providing a more comprehensive evaluation of an organization's ability to withstand attacks.
Penetration testing encompasses a variety of specialized approaches and methodologies, each tailored to assess different aspects of an organization's security posture. Here are some of the different types of penetration testing:
Network penetration - focuses on identifying vulnerabilities and weaknesses within a network infrastructure, including routers, switches, firewalls and other network devices. It aims to assess the potential risks of unauthorized access, data interception and network-based attacks.
Web application penetration test - assesses the security of web applications, including websites, online portals and web services. Pen testers will look for vulnerabilities like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS) and insecure authentication mechanisms.
Mobile application penetration testing - assesses the security of mobile apps for potential data leaks, insecure storage and unauthorized access.
Wireless network penetration - also known as Wi-Fi penetration testing, evaluates the security of wireless networks, identifying weak encryption, rogue access points and other vulnerabilities that could expose the network to unauthorized access.
Social engineering - attempts to manipulate individuals into revealing sensitive information or taking certain actions. This can include phishing, pretexting and physical security assessments.
Cloud infrastructure penetration - assesses the security of cloud-based services, including infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) environments.
SCADA and Industrial Control Systems (ICS) penetration - evaluates the security of industrial control systems used in critical infrastructure sectors like energy, utilities and manufacturing.
Red Team vs. Blue Team exercises - simulate a realistic attack (red team) against an organization's defenses (blue team) to assess both offensive and defensive capabilities. You can learn how to set up a Kubernetes purple teaming lab and how to execute an Azure Cloud purple team exercise.
The type of penetration testing you choose depends on an organization's specific needs, the nature of its infrastructure and the potential risks it faces. Some organizations may require a combination of these testing types to assess their security posture comprehensively.
Penetration testing is typically conducted by trained and experienced professionals –– known as penetration testers, ethical hackers or security consultants –– who specialize in cybersecurity.
Some organizations have dedicated internal security teams, including penetration testers, while others engage third-party security consulting firms or cybersecurity companies to conduct penetration testing.
You can also hire independent security professionals or freelancers with expertise in penetration testing. Red teamers are specialized professionals who simulate advanced cyberattacks using more sophisticated and targeted attack scenarios than standard penetration tests. There are also bug bounty programs, where independent researchers are rewarded for identifying and responsibly disclosing security vulnerabilities. These researchers often conduct penetration testing as part of their efforts to discover and report vulnerabilities.
Pen testers come from diverse backgrounds and may have expertise in various areas of cybersecurity, including network security, application security, wireless security and more. Here's an overview of what it takes to become a penetration tester:
Some popular certifications for aspiring penetration testers include:
Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
More advanced certifications include Offensive Security Certified Expert (OSCE) or Certified Information Security Manager (CISM).
Start by applying for entry-level positions such as junior penetration tester, security analyst or security engineer. Cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving field. Stay updated on the latest threats, vulnerabilities and attack techniques.
As an advanced cloud infrastructure security platform, Sumo Logic supports penetration testing activities and enhances an organization's overall security posture before, during and after penetration testing.
Using real-time log analysis and monitoring, you can gain visibility into attack vectors, including which systems or applications are being targeted, the methods used by attackers and potential points of vulnerability. By establishing a baseline of normal activity within your IT environment, any deviations from this baseline can be flagged, helping to identify potential security breaches or unauthorized access.
After penetration testing, Sumo Logic can assist in analyzing the data generated during the testing process. This analysis can help uncover the impact of simulated attacks, assess the effectiveness of their security controls and prioritize remediation efforts. Sumo Logic's reporting and analytics capabilities help document and report penetration testing results. This is important for regulatory compliance and sharing findings with stakeholders.
Beyond the penetration testing period, you can use Sumo Logic to continuously monitor your IT environment to detect and respond to security threats in real time, enhancing overall security resilience.
Learn how Sumo Logic can help your organization demonstrate security best practices and compliance readiness.
Reduce downtime and move from reactive to proactive monitoring.